Hefner VA employees ‘blindsided’ by changes at hospital

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Hefner VA Medical Center employees apparently were “blindsided” Friday by the news that their hospital will be making a transition away from inpatient, emergency and surgical services to a long-term care and mental health facility for veterans.
Essie Hogue, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Monday her membership was “very angry” at the news delivered in a mandatory meeting last Friday.
“The employees are telling me they felt blindsided,” she said. “… It’s a (big) change. People are walking around like zombies, asking, ‘What happened? What did we do wrong?’ ”
While employees were told that the hospital’s 1,600 to 1,700 jobs in Salisbury would not be reduced, the shift in emphasis will have an impact on numerous careers and veterans themselves, especially those with non-service-connected health problems, Hogue said.
Hogue said she is concerned veterans who have non-service-connected ailments will have to go to local hospitals for urgent care and, in many cases, end up footing the bills.
With the economy the way it is, Hogue said, many veterans do not have jobs or health insurance.
“We owe it to our veterans to give them the best care money can provide,” she said.
Employees also question recent multi-million-dollar investments made in operating rooms, intensive care and acute care facilities at the Hefner VA.
“Such a waste,” Hogue said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a completely different take on what’s happening with the changes.
The Hefner VA Medical Center will become a “Center of Excellence for Mental Health” and a “Center of Excellence for Long-Term Care,” according to VA officials, who also emphasize the Salisbury hospital will continue to offer outpatient services in primary care and specialty care.
Veterans served by the hospital in Salisbury and clinics in Charlotte, Hickory and Winston-Salem will benefit from increased outpatient services and health-care services closer to where the majority of veterans live, the VA added.
Veterans with inpatient medical or surgical needs will be provided care closer to their homes through “partnership or affiliate agreements,” the VA said.
“(The) VA will soon coordinate inpatient medical and surgical services at the Salisbury VA Medical Center with our community partners (such as Rowan Regional Medical Center),” the VA said in a press release. In the past year, the Salisbury VA has had about 2,300 inpatients.
Meanwhile, the VA clinics in Charlotte and Winston-Salem will be upgraded to “health care center facilities.”
“These … sites are designed to provide primary care, general and specialized mental health services and a wide range of specialty services,” VA officials said. “Provision of day surgery at or near these locations will also occur.”
In a press release, VA Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network Director Daniel F. Hoffman said, “These are very positive changes for the veterans we so proudly serve.”
“There will be no gap in the continuity of care for veterans who have been or would have received inpatient surgery or medical care services at the Salisbury VA Medical Center.”
U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., said Monday his office is still trying to chase down what’s fact and what’s rumor with the transition in Salisbury. He said as the office receives clarification from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, he will get closer to writing a letter to VA Secretary James Peake and ask what’s going on.
“It’s hard for me to respond (right now),” Watt said.
He acknowledged his office started to hear rumors of a pending change at the Hefner VA Medical Center about two weeks ago.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s office said Monday the senator “stands ready to assist veterans and hospital employees in Rowan County and the surrounding communities who have concerns about this transition, and she hopes this decision will ultimately improve the quality and accessibility of health care for North Carolina veterans.”
The Salisbury VA also will not have an emergency room, meaning veterans in long-term care needing emergency attention will have to go by ambulance from the VA to Rowan Regional Medical Center.
Overall, Hogue, the local union president, expressed disappointment that VA employees were never involved in the process leading to the changes outlined Friday. She said she met with Hefner VA Director Carolyn Adams about two weeks ago, when the director told her she had nothing to report รณ that she was waiting on a decision herself.
That suggests to her it already was a done deal, Hogue said.
Hogue said the American Federation of Government Employees chapter at the VA will be reaching out to veterans organizations asking for their help.
The change will affect many people who gave up careers in the private sector to work at the Salisbury VA, Hogue said.
In a press release earlier, Hoffman said he wanted to assure employees who would be affected “that we will provide opportunities for them to serve in other meaningful ways in our network.”